EVANSTON — Another game, another second-half dud from Northwestern’s offense.
And another loss.
After racing out to a 17-0 lead in the first half against No. 14 Michigan (4-1, 2-0 Big Ten), Northwestern (1-3, 1-1 Big Ten) couldn’t get anything going offensively in the second half, ultimately falling 20-17 and dropping its third straight game.
Clayton Thorson — who finished 16-of-27 for 174 yards — began the game in a rhythm, but that faded in the second half, in part because he didn’t have the protection to hit receivers on longer-developing routes. With virtually no rushing attack sans Jeremy Larkin, the offense became a bunch of quick-hitting passes, which made it tough to get chunks of yards and sustain drives.
It’s not as if the offense just couldn’t execute at all, though. The first half was just about everything Northwestern could’ve hoped for. The offense came out and scored on its first three possessions, and Thorson looked sharp on quick-to-intermediate routes.
Most of the offense was dink and dunk in the first half, save for a 36-yard catch-and-run by true freshman JJ Jefferson on a well-executed screen play during the Wildcats’ first offensive series. Short touchdown runs by Clayton Thorson and John Moten IV sandwiched a career-long 45-yard field goal by Charlie Kuhbander, which, coupled with strong third down defense early, helped NU build a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter.
Too early for an upset alert?— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) September 29, 2018
No. 14 Michigan is down 17-0 in the second quarter to @NUFBFamily, and Coach Fitz is fired up: pic.twitter.com/s6B6nRfpmQ
Defensively, the Northwestern secondary gave up a few big plays, but did a good job keeping Wolverine quarterback Shea Patterson in check for a while. Michigan went just 1-of-7 on third and fourth downs in the first half, which allowed Northwestern to win the time of possession battle (16:17 to 13:43) in the first 30 minutes despite averaging nearly two fewer yards per play.
After a relatively up and down first half, the second was a slugfest.
Michigan sustained drives of 56 and 69 yards in the third quarter, but came away with just two field goals, which cut the NU lead to 17-13 entering the fourth quarter. Northwestern’s defense stood up Michigan in the red zone despite injuries to Nate Hall and Greg Newsome II.
But, the offense just could not stay on the field, and Michigan wore down the NU defense. Karan Higdon eclipsed 100 yards for the Wolverines, and Patterson hit on enough deep passes to keep the defense honest. Patterson’s running ability also bailed Michigan’s offense several times in the second half on plays where Northwestern lost contain.
The Northwestern offense mustered just 24 yards and two first downs in the third quarter, before punting on its first three fourth quarter drives. Michigan tallied six sacks against a beleaguered NU offensive line that was without Tommy Doles and Blake Hance for the vast majority of the game.
In their first game without Jeremy Larkin, the Wildcats leaned on Moten and Solomon Vault, who made his first appearance of the season after missing all of last season. The duo combined for 54 yards on 20 carries, and didn’t have much room to run throughout the game.
Northwestern travels to East Lansing to face Michigan State next week.